December 9, 2011

Texas redistricting is again in limbo

The Supreme Court temporarily blocks congressional, legislative maps, possibly forcing Texas to hold two primary elections.

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The nation's highest court late Friday temporarily blocked the interim court-drawn maps for Texas' legislative and congressional districts, throwing the state's primaries into even greater turmoil.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an emergency challenge by Texas Republicans to determine which maps should be used in next year's elections, setting Jan. 9 as the date it will hear arguments.

"Anything is possible now," said Bill Miller, an Austin-based consultant who has worked with Republicans and Democrats. "All bets are off and all bets are on."

It was unclear how this ruling will affect Texas' primaries next year. Some suggested that there could be two primaries.

In the state's filings asking the Supreme Court to take on the case, the attorney general's office suggested that unaffected races, such as the presidential primary, could still be held March 6 as planned, while legislative and congressional races could be pushed to May 22. That would mean any runoffs for congressional or legislative races would likely be held in the summer.

Filing for spots on next year's ballot started Nov. 28 and is scheduled to continue until Thursday. The filing period also could be changed as the fight plays out.

"It would not be logical for us to hold elections in March for certain local and statewide races and then do elections for the affected races in May, but that may well be what happens," Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Maxwell said.

Local Republicans cheered the Supreme Court's move.

"We are very pleased," Tarrant County Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Klick said. "I don't think anybody had any idea what was going to happen."

Last month, a San Antonio federal court redrew the maps, originally submitted by the Republican-led Legislature, after minority groups sued the state, saying they didn't reflect growth in Texas' Hispanic and black populations. Democrats had cheered the court-drawn maps, saying they would allow more minority representation and enable more Democrats to be elected, and urged the Supreme Court not to intervene.

"I'm disappointed, but I will continue to fight," said state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, a plaintiff in one of the redistricting lawsuits. "The justices need to know that the fight for fairness and justice in redistricting and representation is the reason the Voting Rights Act was passed ... and it needs to be enforced to its fullest."

Veasey had opted to not seek another term in the Texas House and instead run for the new 33rd Congressional District, which under the court-drawn map united many of Tarrant County's minority communities. Veasey said he couldn't know what seat he will be running for until the court decides which maps Texas will operate under.

A federal court in Washington, D.C., had refused to approve the Legislature's maps without a trial, agreeing with the Justice Department that there was enough reason to question whether the maps hurt minority representation. Because Texas has a history of racial discrimination, the state cannot implement its maps or other changes without federal approval. The court-drawn maps were to remain in place until the two parallel legal fights are resolved.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott first asked the San Antonio court to block its own maps from going into effect, a request it denied. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the court-drawn maps were legally flawed.

He praised the court's move Friday.

"The Texas Attorney General's Office is committed to protecting the integrity of Texas' elections by ensuring they are conducted based on legally constructed redistricting maps, and the Supreme Court's decision today is an important step in that direction," Abbott said in a statement. "We look forward to presenting oral argument(s) to the Supreme Court. ... We understand the need for speed for Texas voters as well as those who wish to run for office."

More than 20 members of the Legislature have announced in recent months that they are not seeking another term. Some blamed the redistricting map that they thought would be in place as politically adverse. Others saw a chance to run for higher office. All of those plans are now on hold.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, also a plaintiff in one lawsuit, is confident that the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold the court-drawn maps.

"We are continuing our campaign full steam ahead," Davis said. "We have all learned that this is only one of many steps in the process to protecting the rights of voters and securing leadership that cares about the real priorities of Texans."

State Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, who filed to run against Davis, said Friday night that his plans are unchanged.

Davis' Senate District 10 was redrawn by the Legislature in a way that many predicted would make it difficult for her to win re-election. The court-drawn map left her district's current boundaries virtually unchanged.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695

Twitter: @amanbatheja

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